Writing a blog on living in London, it has been suggested, means one should stick to writing about London, which of late I have strayed from doing a fair bit. Yet what I am really writing about is becoming and being a Londoner, and now wherever I travel beyond the city, I fear I view the outside world through a London-tinted filter. Other cities are mentally compared to London before I realise I am doing it, and so it was on a recent business trip to Berlin.
As I left Heathrow (strangely having cleared security twice, and coming back through Arrivals before completing Departures, thanks to a complicated incident involving my distracted colleague and a forgotten suit) I had no preconceived vision of Berlin, a city to which I have never been. Obviously I was aware of the city's tumultuous and sad past, and the immense hope with which the city has continued to change and redevelop. But as soon as I left Tegel airport (which reminded me of a Lego airport, so clip-together and tiny it was) I began to analyse the city; playing a mental game of City Top Trumps in my head, comparing it to London.
First I noticed the trees (which I'd even noted from the plane on the descent) - trees were everywhere throughout the city, green still as autumn has not quite reached Germany yet. But they were far newer, straighter, tidier trees than those we have here; old, bent, wiggly trees growing between the concrete. And here, no stereotype invocations intended, I noticed a staggering regularity to the whole city. If there had been a theme which city-planners were working to it would have been "squares of every size" or "the eternal glory of the platz"; everything is laid out and positioned just so. London's city shapers in contrast were clearly working with a plan drawn by a four year old with a box of crayons and a vivid imagination.
Understandably, much of the city's architecture lacks London's immediately evident centuries of history, and various newer buildings are not particularly stunning. Save elements, of course, such as the stunningly redesigned Reichstag, which has brought elements of transparency to the pillars of governance through architecture in an extraordinarily creative manner. Berlin, much alike London, could probably be reduced to a few iconic buildings and locations in the eyes of many visitors, yet the story which these may tell would doubtless be very different. As each significant government to control the city has stamped its mark on the city, Berlin has come to represent a very mixed history, culture and place today. I found it hard to get a feel of what Berlin really was, although my very fleeting visit of less than 24 hours (much of those at night) probably did not help this much.
The people, who are not called "Berliners" (JFK, take note - a "Berliner", as any fule kno, is a type of donut), are fabulously polite and speak excellent English. This is a great consolation to one whose brain contains merely a single German phrase after studying the language for 2 years at school; a single phrase concerned with locating the nearest open-air swimming pool, so not exactly of use on a business trip in Berlin.
I spied not a single threatening youth or drunken, slurring lout. This was a clean and civilised city for clean and civilised people. And all very nice it was too, but, as an occasionally uncivilised soul, I found myself missing the rambling chaos of disorganised London. The yelling, the dashing, the traffic systems not overseen by gloved and booted armed forces, the higgledy-piggledy architecture. I was almost glad to get stuck on a gridlocked, unpatrolled motorway before finally swooping back into London past the shambolic Hammersmith Flyover. And I'm sure very few people can ever claim a fondness for the Hammersmith Flyover; travel can do peculiar things to one!